During Chinese New Year, a one-week national holiday, and in an effort to see more of the island I purportedly travelled to in order to explore and experience, I went down to the cape of Taiwan, a beautiful beach resort called Kenting.
The original plan had been to stack up with the intrepid and brotastic MC Bassinstinx on his posse's expedition down the rugged and gorgeous Pacific east coast, from Taipei southwards-- but a combination of an incredibly stubborn and heavy cold, and the prospect of braving horrendous weather on the back of a motorbike for over six hours a day gave me pause for thought. I resolved to catch up with them when they reached their destination at the tail-end of the week, Kenting being the one part of the island that can inarguably be called tropical, with the climate to match. So the first part of the week was occupied with much less adventurous-- but still fun-- sojourns to bowling alleys and bars.
Finally, on Thursday, when the tidal wave of mucus clogging my various orifices had at last abated to a mere trickle, I resolved to make my way down. Now, here's the tricky part. Although, as I've mentioned several times, Taiwan has a landmass around the size of Wales or Belgium, this is concentrated into a sort of elongated teardrop shape, with Kenting right at the pointy end. And both the high speed railway line and the more mundane service would not take me anywhere usefully closer than Kaohsiung, a considerable distance north of the cape. Even getting to Kaohsiung was going to be a two and a half hour trip unless I wanted to spring for the somewhat quicker but twice as expensive high-speed rail. From Kaohsiung, my options were either splitting a taxi with any other travellers headed to Kenting, or to catch the coach. As I was heading down on my own, I decided to risk the bus and see how it went.
Poorly, would be the word I'd use.
After a spot of last-minute flapping over my camera, which I'd foolishly neglected to fully charge prior to setting off, I eventually made it to the train station for 3, instead of 2 as I'd hoped. Combined with having to wait 45 minutes for the next direct train, things were off to a poor start. I'd hoped to beat the sunset, which is reliably between 6 and 7 o' clock at this time of year. (One of the advantages of living closer to the Equator is that the seasons remain largely consistent in the amount of daylight you get.)
The train was, as is often the case, completely rammed with passengers. If there is a no-fuss way of securing a seat reservation on a Taiwanese train, I have yet to find it. Needless to say, standing for the entire duration of the journey was unpleasant in the extreme, and I found myself wishing more than once that I'd simply gone with the coach option instead. At least you're guaranteed a seat on a coach, even if it is slower and subject to traffic (which round Chinese New Year would have been particularly egregious). On disembarking the train at Kaohsiung, I hoofed it the one block over to the bus terminal, the sky already showing signs of sunset. I was, at least, relieved that there was only a 15 minute wait here.
As the bus trundled along its circuitous route, my hopes sank with the sun as night drew in. By our first sign of Kenting, it was already dark, and the only bright side was that the Booze Fairy (an endearingly abrasive, heavy-drinking ex-bodybuilder of a Canadian) had called to make sure I was still on course. It was lucky for me that he did, since on arriving in the town at 7.45, the strip-side night market was in full swing and bursting at the seams with people. I had no idea where to go, and rather too much camping gear to go trotting around willy-nilly. Worse, I couldn't get through to the good MC by phone. Things were looking grim, and I struggled through the morass of (mainly Taiwanese) holidaymakers in a sort of daze, though not so much that the carnivalesque performers promoting various shows eluded my notice -- a Mardi Gras style peacock girl, and a ten-foot tall Grim Reaper that turned a fair few heads just as his blood-spattered zombie minions turned stomachs. Before I walked too far though, I found the beach, and shortly after Booze Fairy and his (much) better half, who graciously allowed me to claim their hotel room floor and save the worrying about finding the campsite until tomorrow. So it was, the three of us passed an evening sampling the deep-fried delights of the night market, played rather a lot of games and amassed a highly respectable cache of prizes. Except for me. I amassed a glowstick and the eternal shame of being outplayed at darts by a 4-year old child.
Encumbered by the combined weight of their prizes and my humiliation, we repaired to the roadside Reggae Bar, manned by the ever-amiable Alex (pictured) -- the favoured watering hole of waigouren tourists, Booze Fairy explained. I can sum up its popularity in two words. Fucking. Buckets. Not entirely dissimilar to the infamous buckets of Khao San Road in Bangkok, £8 buys you nearly three pints worth of rum, vodka or whiskey mixed with a soft drink of your choice and Red Bull. An excellent way to kick off a night then, and we were soon pleasantly buzzed -- except for the slight and susceptible Better Half, who elected to quit while she was ahead and retire for the night. Booze Fairy and I decided to take it indoors, and hit up the Disco Bar, featuring equal opportunities pole dancing (although the sexy nurse uniform was rather salting the pudding where the male dancer was concerned).
Here, by some strange kismetic happenstance, we happened across the MC's island-traversing posse, sans the MC himself, whose exploits in the week had apparently caught up with him and packed him off to bed at something approaching a civilised hour. How rude. Nevertheless, tales of our respective exploits were exchanged -- a particularly hospitable town in Hualien County had made friends of them for life by offering them the local school building to camp in on a particularly inhospitable night.
There were plans to relocate the drinking to their campsite, in order to 'party on' as the youths refer to it, but sadly Booze Fairy and I got split off from the main group and lost their trail, and without a number to call them on, had to be content with retiring to the hotel.
We rose late, and I got my first proper eyeful of Kenting. The main tourist area, as far as I have found, is concentrated around a single strip snaking up a hillside, featuring several bars, restaurants of various ethnic stripe (though Thai and Indian joints feature heavily) beachwear and more general clothing shops, and a handful of other concerns (massage parlours, guesthouses and hotels, convenience stores and so on).
At night the strip really comes alive, but there is still a lot to do during the day, if you like food, shopping or hiking -- there are several areas of outstanding natural beauty in the Kenting area that I would have dearly loved to explore more fully but had to be content with admiring from afar. As it is, the beaches are some of the cleanest, prettiest and handiest I've seen -- Hsiaowan Beach, a.k.a. Caesar Beach, named for the resort opposite but discreetly out of sight, is a very attractive little bay just off the strip yet shielded from it by a broad band of tropical greenery which peters out into a series of unusual rock formations not terribly suited to rock climbing. I was not to be deterred though; at least, not until I very nearly lost a pair of prescription sunglasses down one of the many crevices, at which point I decided to return at a later date in something a little more robust than shorts and sandals.
The beach was pleasingly quiet by the time I made my way down there, at approximately five, newly equipped with beachwear and towel. There were only a handful of families, and a few people walking their dogs. No-one was terribly keen on swimming; the most interaction anyone made with the water was padding up to the softest caress of the sea on the shore, and briefly immersing one's feet before squealing like a toddler and turning tail, presumably in case the water developed some malignant intelligence and decided to drag them bodily to its icy depths. This included young people around my age, I am sorry to report. Disregarding this foolishness to the best of my abilities, I was entirely content to set my gear down and lounge about in the waning sun, reading Sherlock Holmes and listening to the waves lapping at the shore. There was something supremely satisfying, as the light began to die, in rolling up my towel and moseying along to the nearby Tex-Mex restaurant, recommended to me by the MC's pals and Booze Fairy: Smokey Joe's. A sort of exquisite feeling of carefree holidaymaking bliss: it's sunny, I'll hit the beach. Sun goes down, I'm hungry, time to go to a restaurant.
Showing typical cultural sensitivity, Smokey Joe's featured a strong Native American theme; albeit about fifty years behind the times in terms of what could be deemed as in good taste. The questionable décor aside, their pizza was pretty good. I was disappointed to discover it had an Italian base, rather than the Chicago-style pizza I was hoping for. Unfortunately there was very little else on the menu that I was able to eat, the Mexican fare being exclusively chicken and beef-oriented. Still, the gin & tonic was abundant and sharp, which took the edge off any food-based woe.
After a hearty meal, I found myself wandering around the resort on my way back to the campsite, and found myself in the middle of an amusement arcade-cum-bowling alley. Deciding that bowling (badly) by oneself was possibly one of the sadder ways to spend an evening, I ploughed a few quid into my favourite old light gun games, although my skills had seriously atrophied since the last time I'd played, and my rear was severely whooped by a thoroughly unpleasant armoured fellow in the House of the Dead.
it was time to retire for the night, and I headed back to the campsite. I had set up camp in the afternoon, paying the princely sum of NT$100 (£2.20) for the privilege of pitching my tent in the site, about two kilometres out of town, close to Smokey Joe's and the beach. After the exertions of the day and in spite of my late start, I was well ready for some shut-eye. Or at least so I thought. After nestling in and drifting off, I found myself awoken by the scream of a rocket, which was then followed intermittently by more fireworks, over the next ninety minutes. For a period it seemed as if they were timing them specifically to tear me out of my doze after each time I came close to falling back to sleep again. This soon gave way, though, to the Longest Conversation Of All Time, wherein the Filipino folk round the next tent over apparently decided that sleep was for the dogs and elected to talk very loudly in Spanish instead. Between this, and the occasional firework that someone must have forgotten to set off and woken up specially for, I got very little sleep at all, and gave up the ghost around 5am in favour of tinkering with my mp3 player and imagining I was somewhere where people were more inclined to respect the sanctity of the night hours. Like Ibiza. I was happy to see the daylight if only so I could pack up, ramble back over to the resort, pick up a modest breakfast from the convenience store and hit the beach, as the first holidaymaker there. There was a solitary beachcomber, one middle-aged local fellow tending to his boats, and a particularly louche slumbering waigouren tourist who looked as if he'd wandered down to the beach last night after two or three Fucking Buckets and fallen asleep on his backpack, but they left me to my own devices, for which I was very grateful.
Eyes heavy with the scant sleep I'd gleaned, I laid my towel down on the beach and, after slathering myself in Factor 40: Damn Boy You White, was content merely to close my eyes and relax, now that day had come and things were, perversely, quieter. It really was an idyllic beach, and remained so well into the morning. After waking from my doze, and reading a little more Holmes, I went for a brief swim and drew some bemused looks from the few Taiwanese holidaymakers around. 'He's swimming? In the water? Why on earth would he want to do that? What if the water develops some kind of malignant intelligence and drags him down to its icy depths?'
I could be wrong about the reason for their stares, it's entirely possible they were transfixed by the body hair I was exhibiting, which almost certainly outclassed everyone else's on the beach in terms of abundance, including my disreputable fellow Westerner. Possibly everyone else's combined.
I learned, after the fact, that on some beaches in Kenting swimming is verboten, on the logic that Taiwanese People Can't Swim and therefore no-one else is allowed to either. This is to prevent, I presume, the infinitely impressionable Taiwanese race rising up as one and blundering lemming-like into the water to drown in a communal act of purest idiocy. The only bulwark against this orgiastic act of mass suicide are, if you will credit them, the slack handful of officious 'lifeguards' enforcing this No Swimming rule.
If this was the case on Hsiaowan Beach though, I never saw any indication of a lifeguard or a swimming ban-- in fact, from the look of the banana boat tethered to the jetski stood hopefully in wait for some foolhardy punters, it was expected.
After splashing about up to my neck for a while, I returned to my towel, and discovered that contrary to my earlier experiments, and to my great chagrin, the zip-lock bag I'd been using to keep my phone, cards and cash safe in while I swam (having been told stories of inattentive waigouren having their valuables snatched by thieves while in the water) was not, in fact, watertight. Moreover, the phone was now broken. I suddenly was very much afraid of what would happen if my money came apart and my bank card refused to work, and so, making the best of a bad situation, I weighed my banknotes down with shells and left them to dry next to my phone and cards, and went back to my book to take my mind off my stupidity.
Luckily, the weather was hot enough that everything dried out quickly enough, and I confirmed that my bank card was still operational, so I felt confident enough in heading to a restaurant for lunch. Then it was time to return home. The coach back up to Kaohsiung this time was a lot larger and more comfortable than the rough-and-ready minibus that had pootled me down, so between that and my tiredness it was very easy to sleep for the duration and then shuffle over to the train station , where I engaged in a three minute argument with the ticket vendor over exactly where I wanted to go (she seemed to think I wanted some local village and it took six or seven repetitions, the name of my town transcribed in Pinyin and another member of staff to straighten things out). Fortunately this time I had somehow lucked into a seat reservation, and took the fullest advantage of it by passing out and not waking up until we were about ten minutes outside of Changhua, and the relative chill startled me awake. So ended my grand Chinese New Year's adventure to Kenting; hopefully not to be my last visit. Anyone on the island with two or three days to spare, I would heartily recommend you stump up the NT$900 or so it will cost you to get your carcass down to Kenting, and take full advantage of the beaches, bars and assorted tourism spots it has to offer.